If you haven’t been paying attention, then you might assume that everything is the same as it has always been, and you might think that the sameness of your circumstances is a reward for your patriotism. If you have been paying attention, then you know that this assumption is founded on privilege, and you would recognize that people around the country are being oppressed, deported, and murdered. Now, what is the difference between one perspective and another, you might ask. How do two very different groups of Americans find themselves at such odds, at such different conclusions, and with such different responses to the same sociopolitical reality? The answer lies in the narratives we tell ourselves, which shape our perception, sometimes expanding it and sometimes limiting it, resulting in either the inability to see from other vantage points or the ability to do just that.
There is a constant characteristic among the politically conservative that causes them to revise history, to re-contextualize their actions, and reinvent their morality, and all to suit whatever their party’s agenda might be. That said, it is important to recognize that part of this need for revision and reinvention is the fact that their party has not been a constant itself, the conservative oscillating from the Democrats to the Republicans, Dixiecrats to the Tea Party, Libertarianism to Fascism. The one thing that all of these groups have had in common is being motivated by self-interest, being united Eurocentric masculinity, and a general lack of accountability. For this reason we see conservative Republicans praising US Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln within the same breath, regardless of the fact that they held strikingly different views on slavery, and that one was a conservative Democrat while the other was a liberal Republican.
The core characteristic of the conservative is to adhere to a romanticized past that never existed, and in so doing re-contextualizing the historical and cultural figures and events of that past, and essentially hijacking them to serve their ideology. We see this in the Libertarian Flag, the very name of the Tea Party, and in the way that the Christian-Right claims victimhood constantly crying wolf about their religious rights are being oppressed all the while pushing Christianity as the state religion. Since the Bush Years, these characteristics have become more and more blatantly obvious, and they are reflected in our popular culture. Often in strange ways. Three pop culture icons that have been or appropriated, or misappropriated, in recent years are from the comic books The Punisher, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. But I’ll touch up those latter two in another installment of this ongoing cultural commentary. And yes, I know what you’re probably thinking, and indeed it is strange. Comic book characters as mascots for political parties and extremist ideologies? Yeah, that is the level of immaturity our society has devolved to, and it’s an adequate expression of how misappropriation works.
The character of Frank Castle, The Punisher, was created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru in 1974. Within the comics, Frank Castle’s family was gunned down by the mob, and Frank, a veteran, decides to take it upon himself to wage war on crime. Unlike Spider-Man or Superman, Frank Castle doesn’t have superpowers, wear a mask, or a cape, and he doesn’t dress in a colourful spandex outfit. Frank Castle shares more in common with Batman, whose own family was gunned down by criminals, in that Frank has no superpowers and he is all about symbolic vengeance. He is different from Batman, however, because when Frank dons the title of The Punisher, he does not hesitate to use guns and to kill. In fact, this is one of his defining characteristics, what makes him unique, and what makes him dangerous as a revered pop culture icon. Frank Castle, The Punisher, is a brutally violent vigilante, a self-appointed authority who takes the law into his own hands and in doing so takes many, many lives. He wasn’t designed to be a superhero. He isn’t super. Arguably, he isn’t even really a hero, but an outlaw with a twisted sense of justice. The Punisher operates outside the law in order to do what he saw as serving the law. This is, of course, meant to be ironic. That he was created during the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the Nixon presidency is no coincidence. This was a time when America was questioning its identity, its heroism, its fascination with violent entertainment, and its admiration for self-righteous authority.
When The Punisher debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, issue #129 in February of 1974, during the Nixon Years, he seemed to be too violent, too brutal, and too dark. Maybe he was too much of a reminder of the horrific violence that soldiers witnessed, experienced, and committed during the Vietnam War, or maybe Americans just weren’t ready to see such a grim portrayal of their own fantasies brought to life. Whatever the reason, he just didn’t seem to fit into the world of the “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man“, and the character faded into the background, but this would change within the span of a decade.
By the time of the Reagan Years, The Punisher was the perfect embodiment of the ’80s grim and gritty hero, the muscle-bound, gun-toting, macho man who would take it to the bad guys as viciously as they would take it to you. Frank Castle is consumed with an icy rage and a desire to see criminals punished for their crimes while he punishes himself for his own crimes by suppressing his humanity. He is single-minded, obsessive, and selfish in his pursuits. He fit in perfectly with the likes of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone. America was engaged in a futile Cold War, locked into a standstill with the Soviets, and many Americans wanted immediate action. They wanted a clear-cut victory and a good guy versus bad guy narrative. They wanted to see their “enemies” dealt with expeditiously and permanently. That meant not relying on diplomacy, on foreign relations, or on criminal trials. It meant dealing out death to those who you see deserving it. When you can deliver on those things, when your very symbol is an icon of a skull, you represent death, and you endear yourself to people who crave that kind of self-appointed power. This is the kind of thinking that The Punisher was criticizing, but much like Archie Bunker in All in the Family, this is also what made The Punisher appealing to many of his fans who agreed with this school of thought. People have a funny way of taking an ironic criticism of themselves and adopting it as a hallmark of their own flawed value systems.
While The Punisher was created as more of a critique for a certain attitude that was popular in the ’70s and ’80s, he hasn’t been written or illustrated by one person or even one team, so throughout the different incarnations there have been fundamental differences in approach. Just as the character appeals to a widely varying group of fans, he has also been written and drawn by a widely varying group of comic book writers and artists. Not all of them share the same perspective on the character and some even portray him in a way that is in stark contrast to his creators’ intentions. Gerry Conway once acknowledged that he had created a kind of monster with a strange and enduring legacy, saying, “Everybody brings to it their interpretation, and I have no problem of any of those, so long as there’s a fundamental understanding that this is not a good guy.“
The skull emblem worn by The Punisher became a kind of calling card for people who thought of violence as the be-all, end-all solution to crime and terrorism. Never mind that The Punisher is himself a criminal and uses terrorist tactics to achieve his ends. It was taken up by police who were weary of inner city violence and gang-related crimes and liked seeing The Punisher shoot up the Italian Mafia, the Russian Bratva, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese Yakuza. It was taken up by punks on the Left who saw The Punisher as a product of a corrupt statist society and as rebelling against authority by killing corrupt cops and politicians. It was taken up by racists on the Right who saw The Punisher as someone who was cleaning house of immigrant criminals and gangs comprised of young black men and Latinos. It was taken up by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who saw The Punisher fighting against terrorists and foreign enemies. It was taken up by American sniper Chris Kyle who simply thought that the skull looked cool and that he shared a common living with Frank Castle: killing people. The Punisher became many things to many people (and most of those things weren’t good) and each of them saw his skull as symbolic of their own beliefs and worldview. They misunderstood that it simply represented death and that The Punisher was just a product of violence. He isn’t good. He isn’t bad. He isn’t a hero. And he isn’t quite a villain. He does some good things. He does more bad things. That is why he’s considered an anti-hero. When you identify with him, you should feel discomfort, you should feel conflicted about it. The skull isn’t an emblem of any philosophy or ideology. It’s not a call to action. It’s an admission of failure, a failure to serve and protect, and a failure to recognize oneself. The whole point of the character is to question vigilantism and authority, not to embrace them, and the people who know the character best want you to know that.
“I’ve talked about this in other interviews. To me, it’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way. The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system, an example of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’ve basically sided with an enemy of the system. They are embracing an outlaw mentality. Whether you think the Punisher is justified or not, whether you admire his code of ethics, he is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol. It goes without saying. In a way, it’s as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building. My point of view is, the Punisher is an anti-hero, someone we might root for while remembering he’s also an outlaw and criminal. If an officer of the law, representing the justice system puts a criminal’s symbol on his police car, or shares challenge coins honoring a criminal he or she is making a very ill-advised statement about their understanding of the law.“
– Gerry Conway, writer and co-creator of The Punisher, on the use of the skull logo by American law enforcement and the military
The Punisher skull logo has also been adopted by Blue Lives Matter, a counter-protest movement, which sprung up on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blue Lives Matter is a group that holds to the notion that lives of police also matter and therefore we should be siding with law enforcement. Along with All Lives Matter, it operates under the assumption that Black Lives Matter is somehow an isolationist or supremacist movement. What it fails to recognize is that while, yes, all lives matter, not all lives are being systematically targeted by racist agendas. Worse it operates under the misapprehension that there are “blue lives”. People are born black, born brown, born red. These ethnic groups have been targeted time and again by white ethnic groups. Nobody is born blue. Blue skin doesn’t exist. People aren’t born into the profession of police officers. That is a choice that a person deliberately makes. You don’t get to choose your race or ethnicity. What is odd is that if police lives matter isn’t opposed to black lives simply existing, then why did their movement rise up in response to Black Lives Matter, and why did they choose as their symbol for support for law enforcement a skull; an emblem of death? That doesn’t seem to equate “to protect and serve”. It’s intimidation of a minority group disguised as support for police. It’s no different than racism aimed at one ethnicity disguised as national pride in another.
Black Lives Matter sought to show the world how American police have perpetuated a long history of brutality, violence, and suppression on black Americans. Historically, this is true, and it’s almost impossible to argue against. There is a long and undeniable history of police violence against people of colour (I have covered that in a previous entry). Yet, rather than actually acknowledge that and look for possible solutions, many white reactionaries have pointed out that there is even more “black on black violence“, referring to the percentage of black men killed by other black men. But the reality is that one could also say that there has been an even greater problem of “white on white violence“. Most violent acts are perpetrated by people within the same community, ethnically and geographically, and that is not surprising for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. Then there is the other reactionary argument that if people of colour weren’t committing crimes then they wouldn’t be getting shot by the police. Well, there is some truth to that, but that response generally overlooks decades of institutionalized racism, segregation, and socioeconomic conditions, and it also overlooks the important statistics about who commits crimes and where. Violence is violence and it is all negative. But that doesn’t take away the issue of police brutality visited upon black communities. Period.
This is where we get into false narratives. We live in an age of “Fake News” and “False Narratives“. These are terms that have been popularized by fringe groups and political commentators on both the far-Right and the far-Left. There are indeed false narratives, but more often than not, the term is applied without much thought or analysis as a knee-jerk reaction to a statement that someone disagrees with. No further explanation is given to back up the claim or provide a justification for the term being used to begin with. I am going to try to explore that. Holocaust deniers call Anne Frank‘s diary a false narrative, despite the fact that the diary itself is supported by numerous other documents verified to be authentic, and by the fact that a vast majority of historians acknowledge that the Holocaust, which left behind thousands of bodies and thousands of first-hand accounts from survivors, did happen. Many white supremacists claim that the South will rise again, despite a nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments, a surge of African-Americans entering into significant positions within the government, including but not limited to President Barack Obama, and a strong backlash to every single White Pride demonstration for decades. A false narrative persists in its folly despite all identifiable facts pointing toward the contrary. Both the false narrative and the terms “Fake News” and “False Narratives” have been part of the alt-Right movement.
The skull logo of The Punisher has been used by many of these groups. A simplified version of the skull has even become a symbol for the White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville. And what does The Punisher say to that?
– Jon Bernthal, actor who plays Frank Castle/The Punisher on the Netflix series, on the appropriation of the skull logo by white supremacists and the alt-Right
Music + Visuals = Potency
At this point, one would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t ever seen a music video or a portion of one during the course of their lives. Almost without exception we have all seen music videos, at some time or another, whether on MTV, VH1, BET, or YouTube. They have become not only an accepted part of the music industry but an almost mandatory staple of it. If you want to succeed commercially in music today, you have to adapt to this, and in 1981 with the launch of MTV, the music industry was introduced to one of its greatest assets as well as one of its greatest liabilities.
If one goes all the way back to Walt Disney‘s 1940 film, Fantasia, or even further back to the Silly Symphony cartoon series which began in 1929, it becomes immediately apparent that the marriage of visual imagery with music has proven to be a most formidable combination. Music can either be enhanced or diminished by an accompanying visual presentation. Some songs and some visuals mesh so spectacularly that one can barely hear the song without imagining its video counterpart. Take Star Wars for example, it’s almost impossible not to see the scrolling titles and prologue for the films in your mind’s eye whenever you hear John Williams‘ legendary theme, or to see an iconic character like Darth Vader without imagining the ominous theme of the Imperial March. Go on, give it a try. That’s just one obvious way that musical language and visual language can complement each other and create a link between one medium and another.
Now, take a look at music videos today, and most of them seem to have a singular purpose: to sell singles and albums. In this digital age, especially with the dwindling sales of physical music (since we’re on the subject I’ll take vinyl and CD over MP3 files any day), having a popular music video can make or break a career, even to the extent of a terrible song finding widespread fame and commercial success because the music video was so memorable. There are singers and musicians whose entire careers can be chalked up to the artwork and photographs on their albums or their music videos rather than on the quality of their music. Having grown up in the late ’80s and ’90s, I’ve seen this happen with bubblegum pop, teenybopper, boyband, and dance pop stars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living under the naïve delusion that once there was this grand past of substantive and enriching music videos, because no, there wasn’t. There are occasionally performers whose music videos elevate the medium from crass commercialism to high entertainment or even true art. Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, Kate Bush‘s Running Up That Hill, Peter Gabriel‘s Sledgehammer, Madonna‘s Like a Prayer, Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nine Inch Nails‘ Closer, TLC‘s Waterfalls, and The White Stripes‘ Fell in Love with a Girl are all examples of music videos whose visual aesthetics and narratives are more than just sales gimmickry. These are videos that attain artistry and relevance. They obtain renown, acclaim, and even controversy. They achieve immortality through the purity of their innovation.
Nine months ago, actor and musician Donald Glover, under his performing name of Childish Gambino, released a video for his latest single This Is America. The video immediately earned the same level of distinction as those aforementioned videos, because it is a singularly unique vision, as well as being a provocative, controversial, and riveting experience. Opening on an image of a black guitarist performing in a warehouse, the appearance of Glover dancing, and the shooting of the guitarist, whose face is now covered in a bag, in the head at point blank range, the video is openly confrontational in its effort to address racial violence. It continues and shows an all-black church chorus, singing and dancing in joyous and faithful celebration, before being gunned down, again by Glover, and then having their bodies unceremoniously dragged away and discarded. Forcing viewers to confront the harsh realities faced by black Americans every day and challenging long-held stereotypes, Glover’s song and its video present scenarios and raise questions, but intentionally leave the interpretation and the answers up to bewildered viewers.
Within 24 hours, the video for This Is America had received almost 13 million views, and at the time of writing this, the video has received over 484,500,000 views, with over 7.4 million viewers responding that they liked the video and 564 thousand expressing their dislike of it. Steeped in symbolism and allusions to current social crises, the video has become a lightning rod for controversy, and a hot topic among critics and commentators, most of whom praised its audacious visuals and metaphors. That said, the video has also received its share of reservations and critiques, with many of the criticisms focused on the abrupt and disturbing violence. Some viewers have seen it as a revolutionary statement on race relations and gun violence in the United States while others have accused it of reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. Some viewers have decried it as a pretentious mess of disjointed lyrical and visual content while others have hailed it as a masterpiece of Trap (a term for a form of hip-hop popular in the South and characterized by electronic beats, a dark or ominous energy, and scathing social commentary).
In terms of visibility, Donald Glover, as an actor, a writer, a producer, and a director, has been rising in prominence for some time now with his roles in 30 Rock, Community, Atlanta, The Martian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Likewise his musical persona as Childish Gambino has risen as well, beginning with the melodic and confident rap of his first album Camp, continuing with his startlingly original follow-up album Because the Internet, and culminating in the brilliantly funky and psychedelic album “Awaken, My Love!”. And though it is true that singles like Bonfire, Crawl, and the Grammy-winning Redbone certainly stood out from anything else that was coming out of contemporary hip-hop or R&B at the time, the video for This Is America has managed to overshadow most of his other creative output as a hip-hop artist. Depending on how you look at it, this could be viewed as either a good or a bad thing, but it remains a fact. Topping the power of a strong single with an unforgettable music video will be a challenge for Gambino, but one that I think he is more than up for, and the result could be equally spectacular.
While it’s a topic that I have often overlooked, fashion has been an undeniable stone in the foundation of both high and low culture, serving as a point at which the worlds of commerce, films, music, and art have all intersected. It has become impossible to explore any of these areas thoroughly without seeing how the world of fashion has overlapped with all of them. Whether it’s costume design for films and television series, the latest business suits for the bigwigs of industry, the wardrobe supplied for commercial photography and modelling, or the extravagant apparel of celebrities walking the red carpet, fashion is an integral element of the modern cultural zeitgeist. And in recent memory, but especially in the last two decades, it’s hard to find another fashion designer who has shaken things up as much as John Galliano.
Controversial designer John Galliano, head of Dior from 1996-2011, has often been referred to as “the rock star of fashion”. Like a rock star, Galliano’s designs have pushed the boundaries of the fashion world with their combination of his haute couture (high culture) fashion mindset and the more counterculture Goth and Punk do-it-yourself aesthetics. He has also courted controversy on numerous occasions, both for his designs, and for his outrageous statements. Galliano has also drawn considerable influence and inspiration from the world of Fine Art. This becomes particularly apparent in his Ready-to-Wear 1997 Fall line (aptly dubbed the “Siouxsie Sphinx” line), which combined imagery taken from Ancient Egyptian artworks and the styles of the Goth sub-culture that was cultivated by none other than Siouxsie Sioux of the Post-Punk/Goth-Pop band, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and for his Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2008 line, which built upon the themes and aesthetics of the aforementioned line and explored other influences.
Galliano drew inspiration from Siouxsie Sioux, whose own fashion aesthetics were a mix of the black leather, metal spikes, dog collars, and tousled hair of Punk, the fishnet stockings and garters of the Cabaret dancer, and the theatricality of Kabuki performance with its luxurious silk robes, pale facial makeup, heavy eyeliner, and dark lipstick. Another important aspect of Siouxsie’s style was her love of the artworks of the German Expressionists and the artists of the Vienna Secession, most notably Gustav Klimt. The influence of Klimt’s work is most apparent on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1982 album A Kiss in the Dream House, which as an aside is often considered the band’s greatest artistic achievement in their early Post-Punk days, and, along with a trio of albums by pioneering Goth-Pop band The Cure, helped to establish the sound of the Alternative and Goth genres as distinct from the umbrella terms “New Wave” and “Post-Punk”. Sioux’s style was a combination of Punk, New Romantic, and the emerging Goth, and it would rise in prominence throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, and help give birth to the Goth look of the ’90s adopted by Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and others.
Looking even further into the progression of influence and inspiration, Gustav Klimt was moved to emulate much of what he admired in the artworks of the Ancient Byzantines and Greeks, with their lavish mosaics, recurring geometric patterns (of triangles, squares, and spirals), and bright flourishes of gold leaf. Klimt’s art, more of which can be seen HERE, was striking in its modern style and yet still incorporated ancient elements, resulting in something that felt both timeless and fresh. Klimt’s work was considered controversial and subversive when he, along with artists Koloman Moser and Max Kurzweil, and architects Joseph Hoffman and Joseph Maria Olbrich began the movement known as the Vienna Secession. The group’s motto was “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.” (English trans. “To every age its art. To every art its Freedom.”)
This motto accurately reflects Galliano’s attitude towards fashion as well. We can best see the effects of these various stylistic progenitors in Galliano’s opulent and elegant dress from the Haute-Couture Spring-Summer line in 2008. Here one can see echoes of Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, Gustav Klimt, and classical works of art and design from the Byzantine tradition. Much like a garment made from different materials, which are cultivated and gathered from different places, then carefully dyed, cut, and sown together following the plans of a designer, these seemingly disparate influences and inspirations all come together via the direction of creative peoples. Seeing this progression forwards and backwards through time not only hits home just how much art and culture is reverberated throughout the ages, but also how art in one form, the visual arts, can impact art in other forms, music, performance, and fashion.
Currently some of Galliano’s most spectacularly flamboyant designs, including the one featured in the photo above, are on view until March 3, 2019 at the Denver Art Museum as part of the special exhibition Dior: From Paris to the World, of which the Denver Art Museum is the sole location. If you’re interested in seeing more of Galliano’s Siousxie Sioux and Gustav Klimt-inspired designs for Dior, please follow these links to slideshow of his 1997 Ready-to-Wear Fall line and his 2008 Haute Couture Spring-Summer line on the Vogue website:
John Galliano’s Fall 1997 Ready-to-Wear Line for Dior
John Galliano’s Spring-Summer 2008 Haute Couture Line for Dior
From its opening in 1947 being protested for its extreme opulence during post-WWII austerity measures to its use of cultural misappropriation in the many themes for each fashion line, from the small size of both its dresses and its models to claims of plagiarism, the house of Dior has been no stranger to controversy. But nothing has been quite so controversial as a series of highly insensitive, violent, and anti-Semitic remarks made by John Galliano, which lead to his subsequent firing as the fashion company’s Creative Director. Galliano had held the position for almost fifteen years at the time of his termination. The reason behind it were ultimately two separate incidents when Galliano, who was drunk on both occasions, made some pretty horrific statements to patrons of a cafe in Paris, and then later again in the same cafe where the incident was caught on video and shared online. In the video, Galliano said, “I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today, your mothers, your forefathers would be fucked gassed, and fucking dead.” Galliano’s remarks were made in France, where it is illegal to make racist statements or to promote fascism, and so he was arrested, and his Legion of Honour medal revoked.
Ironically, much of the artwork that Galliano took inspiration from, be it the work of Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, or Gustav Klimt, was part of a trend of radical artistic reinvention in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a trend largely born of Jewish intellectualism, and one that Hitler would denounce as Entartete Kunst: degenerate art. Greater irony, still, is that Galliano, a Gibraltar-born citizen of Britain, and a homosexual man, would also have found his own works banned and himself imprisoned by the Nazi regime.
Since his firing, Galliano has had a temporary residency for fashion designer Oscar de la Renta in 2013, and then in 2014 he became the Creative Director for Maison Margiela.
The invention of the photograph was so much more than a mere technological innovation. It enabled the human species to graphically document their own existence while simultaneously allowing photographers the unique ability to express themselves in a manner that forced the viewer to experience their perspective. This kind of multi-faceted engagement with the viewer created a level of intellectual stimulation, and often provocation, as well as emotional stimulation, and sometimes manipulation, that carried with it the power to shape our perception of individuals and events. Lives were forever captured on film and preserved. Occurrences were frozen in time for all the world to see and to study. And ideas were proliferated through print.
Indeed, it’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe even more depending on the picture, but more importantly, what words and how they are expressed is ultimately what determines their effect on us. Whether a photo accurately reflects its subject matter is largely dependent on the context in which we see it and how the image is in turn stored in our memories. Equally important is the intent of its author, the photographer, and how the photo is treated after its taken, whether its colours are heightened or muted, or whether the image had been cropped. Each alteration to the image can reveal so much about both the photographer’s own mindset and what they want viewers to see.
Collected here are some of the most iconic and socially significant photographs of the 20th Century and the stories behind them. While I am sharing these primarily with the intention of education, some of these images are graphic and may be considered disturbing, so view them at your own discretion.
“No one wants to touch the legitimate hunter, but we’ve got to protect society from nuts with guns. Something must be done.“
In the first two decades of the 2000s, when we have reached an epidemic of gun violence where there is almost one mass shooting in America every other week and police shootings of unarmed black men occur more and more frequently, Republican attitudes towards gun control can be summed up with these words:
“I think that mental health is your problem here. But this isn’t a gun situation here.” – Donald Trump
Consider the numbers alone. We are barely more than halfway through the year 2018 and over 500 people have been shot and killed by police. 92 of those were black. While only 13% of America’s population is black, 31% of people shot and killed by the police are black, 39% of those shot and killed when not attacking are black, and 62% of those shot and killed by police when unarmed are black. Why the discrepancy in fatal shootings? The answer isn’t simple and a multitude of factors must be considered: a history of police brutality, racism and racial profiling, economic conditions, lack of educational and employment opportunities in inner cities, mass incarceration, the militarization of the police, and an over reliance upon firearms as the first defense.
These are but a few of the instances in recent years when black men were killed by the police…
On January 1, 2009, a twenty-two year old man, Oscar Grant, was shot in the back while being restrained by police at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California.
On July 17, 2014, forty-three year old Eric Garner was choked to death by a plainclothes police officer after selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York. Garner was placed in an illegal stranglehold after he asked the officer to not touch him.
On August 9, 2014, eighteen year old Michael Brown was shot six times in Ferguson, Missouri after an altercation with a police officer.
On November 23, 2014, twelve year old Tamir Rice was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio while he was pretending to draw and fire a toy gun.
On December 2, 2014, thirty-four year old Rumain Brisbon was shot twice in the chest by a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona who claimed the pill bottle Brisbon was holding was a weapon.
On March 6, 2015, nineteen year old Tony Robinson was shot by a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin after reports were made that he was yelling, behaving erratically, and jumping in front of traffic. The police had been called to help the troubled young man who was later found to have been using multiple drugs.
On April 2, 2015, forty-four year old Eric Harris was shot to death during a sting operation in Tulsa, Oklahoma when an undercover police officer mistook his gun for his taser.
On April 4, 2015, fifty year old Walter Scott was shot in North Charleston, South Carolina during a traffic stop for a broken brake light.
On July 5, 2016, thirty-seven year old Alton Sterling was shot three times in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by police officers who claimed he was reaching for his gun while he was being restrained.
On July 6, 2016, thirty-two year old Philando Castile was shot seven times by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota after a traffic stop. He let the officer know he had a gun and was then shot as he reached for his driver’s license.
On September 16, 2016, forty year old Terence Crutcher was tasered and then shot to death in Tulsa, Oklahoma by police officers, who referred to him as a “big bad dude”, after leaving his vehicle in the middle of the road and behaving erratically.
We’ve seen the headlines in the newspapers, the video reports on the news channels, the blog articles, the protests and rallies, and yet this epidemic of police violence against black men continues.
This is why Living Colour felt it necessary to cover Notorious B.I.G.‘s classic hip-hop track Who Shot Ya? in 2016 with a video documenting gun violence.
In the early hours of the morning on December 4, 1969, Chicago Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were gunned down by police during a raid. The previous night, Hampton had taught a course at a local church on political education and activism, and then with eight other Panthers met at an apartment gathering place for dinner, where his drink had been drugged by an undercover FBI agent in preparation for the police raid. Clark was found on security in the front room at a table where he sat in a chair with a shotgun resting across his lap. He was shot in the chest. In the bedroom, Hampton, heavily unconscious under the effects of the barbiturates slipped in his drink late the night before, did not wake in the midst of the gunfire. Hampton’s nine-month pregnant fiancée, Deborah Johnson, was dragged from the room and Hampton was shot to death while sleeping in his bed. Witnesses in the apartment reported overhearing the involved police officers having an exchange of words in which the following was said:
“That’s Fred Hampton.“
“Is he dead? Bring him out.“
“He’s barely alive.“
“He’ll make it.“
This was followed by another two shots fired at point blank range into Hampton’s head.
“He’s good and dead now.“
Three other Panthers (Blair Anderson, Verlina Brewer, and Brenda Harris) were also shot at by the police, brutally beaten, and then falsely accused of aggravated assault. The fourteen police officers involved in the raid fired somewhere between 80 and 100 shots. During the raid, only one shot was ever fired by a Panther, and that one shot was caused by Mark Clark reflexively squeezing the trigger of his shotgun as he himself was shot in the chest.
This is why I wear a Black Panther Party patch despite be raised in a small, rural, mostly conservative New England town with a population that was 96% white and being white myself. And this is why I write this post.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – Amendment II to the United States ConstitutionThe equality of all man wasn’t acknowledged by Jefferson when it came to his his slaves, and there is no doubt that among black slaves, the predominant labour force in North America from 1619 to 1865, that there was no life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. Independence was a myth. The reality was racial dependence. When viewed in context with the actual history, the words of Jefferson feel hollow, and his words and actions are further proof that the opportunities and freedoms guaranteed by The Declaration of Independence and by the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States did not apply to black people and were never intended to. The laws of the land protected the white man’s freedom, the white man’s land, and the white man’s property. These laws were not extended to people of colour of African, Native, Hispanic, or Asian descent.
On March 3, 1991, after a night of drinking and watching basketball, three friends, Rodney King, Freddie Helms, and Bryant Allen, decided to go driving around midnight in Los Angeles. King was the driver. At 12:30 am, husband and wife officers of the California Highway Patrol, Tim Singer and Melinda Singer, saw the speeding vehicle and followed in pursuit. This became a high-speed pursuit as King attempted to evade the police knowing that a DUI would violate his parole. The pursuit escalated, leaving the freeway for residential areas, and additional LAPD police vehicles joined in, including a helicopter. After being cornered, King was forced to stop his car at Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street, where he and his two passengers were ordered to exit the vehicle with their hands on their head and lie face down on the road. Allen and Helms complied with this order and were subjected to rough physical handling, claiming that they had been kicked, stomped, and beaten. Helms received a head injury from a nightstick strike while he was lying on the ground. King refused to leave his vehicle at first, but when he did step out, he allegedly patted his buttocks, which was mistakenly perceived as him reaching for a weapon. Singer raised her weapon in preparation for an arrest. However, the Singers were informed that the LAPD would be taking over from this point onward, and all officers were commanded by ranking officer Stacey Koons to holster their guns. Officers Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Timothy Wind then proceeded to surround King and subdue him. Three of the four LAPD officers together then beat King with their nightsticks, and kicking and punching him over 50 times, as well as tasering him twice. Despite much of the brutal incident being caught on video by local witness, George Holliday, who then sold the footage to a local channel, the three officers, Briseno, Powell, and Wind, were acquitted of use of excessive force by a majority white jury. A federal trial later found officers Koons and Powell guilty of violating King’s civil rights. This famously resulted in riots throughout LA.
This is why Rage Against the Machine wrote Killing in the Name to address the long history of racial violence perpetuated by the police and by white Americans upon black Americans.
At 9:26 pm on March 18, 2018, a twenty-two year old black man, Stephon Clark, was shot while in the back yard of his grandmother’s house, where he had been living. Police had been looking for a suspect involved in a series of car break-ins where the windows of the cars had been smashed with a tool bar. Clark, who had previously had a stint in jail, was unarmed when he was shot. The only possession found on his body was a cellular phone which, according to the the two police officers on the scene, he had been holding out in front of him. Claiming that the white phone was being held out in an aggressive manner, and that they mistook it for a gun, and fearing for their safety, the two officers opened fire on Clark, firing twenty rounds. Eight shots hit Clark, six of which entered his body through his back, and the coroner’s report indicated that one bullet entered his body after he had already collapsed to the ground. It was three minutes before an officer attempted to speak with him and five minutes before anyone approached Clark who lay dying on his grandmother’s lawn. After the arrival of other police officers, and realizing all too late that Clark was unarmed, the two officers muted their body-camera microphones to avoid self-incrimination.
This is why Colin Kaepernick and fellow NFL players kneel during the playing of the National Anthem despite facing criticism from social conservatives who turn the discussion to disrespecting the flag and veterans.
This is why we all must stand together and advocate for stricter gun laws, legal policy and procedure reform, and an open, national dialogue about racially motivated violence and racial profiling in law enforcement. We are all in this together and until all people are treated fairly and equally by law enforcement this kind of unnecessary and deeply contentious violence will proliferate. Regardless of your gender or race, as a human being, your fellow human beings are being killed, and it is your civic duty to recognize and address this injustice.
This is part of the ongoing series of articles about the Temple of Art exhibition and documentary. Directed by photographer Allan Amato, executive produced by Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, and Jon Schnepp, Temple of Art: The Documentary chronicles the lives of artists and asks them why they create their art.
There are many facets to Satine Phoenix. Her exuberance, like her creativity, cannot be easily confined. Satine’s work is very much the product of her imagination and her passions, which run the gamut from the sensuous to the fantastical. As one of the artists contributing to the Temple of Art project, I interviewed Satine about her work and her involvement with ToA. Here’s the interview.
Have you always been interested in art and creative expression?
This question is funny to me because the answer is more than yes. When you live and breathe a certain way you don’t realize that people don’t live the way you do or interact with the world the way you do. I just am, and my “am” is a creative “am”. Though my illustrations started when I was a kid and didn’t know how to be honest with my feelings and thoughts. I would say one thing and draw how I really felt. That’s why there’s so much emotion in my drawings… because they are my actual emotions.
Unlike many artists that I’ve known who are introverts, you’re more of an extrovert. With the artists who are more quiet or reserved, they tend to be very expressive in their artwork. You, however, are very expressive in both your interactions with people and in your art. How do you maintain that level of enthusiasm and energy in both your personal life and in your art?
I have a lot of energy. I’ve always been social and love to feed off of other people’s energy, especially creatively. So, I’m actually an optimistic introvert who is amazed by things like a six-year old… or I guess I’m both (an introvert and an extrovert as I live in both extremes). And that makes sense. I’m a Gemini. Laugh about those astrological signs all you want, but the duality of the monkey in me is a real thing. I love going out and having fun and learning and feeling and then I get overwhelmed and have to run inside and recharge for weeks at a time. I can’t even talk on the phone without being warned ahead of time. The photos you see of me online are when I leave my house for an hour to visit friends. I take a ton of photos and play then go home… and I’m enthusiastic. It’s just in my nature.
As someone who has her hands in so many areas of the entertainment industry, from acting to modeling, from illustration to storytelling, how do you balance your passions and still have time for all the great projects that you do like Temple of Art or your graphic novel, New Praetorians?
Balance? As I said, I have a lot of energy. Many years as a hustler has whet my palate with hunger for many different projects. Now I’m an artist who has a day job (doing New Praetorians). Sure, I could just sit back and work on this one gig for the next ten years (because that’s how long it will take me to do all 27 issues and extras we have planned), but that would drive me nuts, so it’s not really choosing to balance lots of projects. I need lots of projects or I get bored. Lots of all different kinds to satisfy all the different facets of me. Moment to moment I figure out how to fit everything in. Sometimes I’m successful at it. Other times I let projects build up and stress myself out and get overwhelmed. Luckily New Praetorians is my constant project, so it is my center, and for people like me it’s good to have a constant. My artistic endeavors won’t end with comics either. I’ve got a children’s book I have on the list, an animation and an autobiography, documentary, and short film I’ll be working on as well. Outside of work, I want to learn a language, get better at tango, am a fitness nerd/gym fox, want to learn the violin, get better at archery, do more marathons, climb more mountains, etc…. Never live with the regret of not doing what you dream. Maybe that’s how I balance, I know I’m working through my dream lists and sometimes they overlap. But the stress is worth it. 100%.
How did you become involved with Temple of Art?
Well, Allan is one of my best friends and I wanted to support Temple of Art and then when it started to become real he asked me to participate! That was really kind of him to believe in me enough to ask as I’m not a seasoned artist like the rest of the TOA clan. (I did go the Academy of Art for 5 years… that counts ya?)
Can you describe the process of having Allan Amato photograph you and then reinterpreting that photo with your own unique artistic touch?
Artists hang out differently than other people. When I hang out with many of my photographer friends, we usually just do photo shoots (aka: hanging out) and then go to lunch. Who knows what will come of the photos! It’s not like I sell them or anything. But that’s how we hang out; we create art. Allan and I have shot a few times together and I love being engulfed in his art. I’m hyper-observant and enjoy watching him in his element. So, being photographed by Allan was just another day of playing with my friend. The hard part was coming up with an idea that wouldn’t cover up his art. I didn’t want to cover it… but I also couldn’t paint on a drawing of myself looking at me, so I got rid of the eyes. (laughter) It’s a very vulnerable feeling. If I were to draw what I want all of the time, I’d draw girls wrapped up in girls in a sea of girls. That makes me happy for some reason. Not in a sexual way, but a sensual way. So, I drew girls all wrapped around the photo he took. I prefer black and white but added some color. This style is a bit cartoony, but so am I. And I wanted it to represent me specifically.
With Temple of Art: The Documentary, you are part of an amazing collective of creative talents, both in front of the camera and behind it. What has it been like associating with all of these diverse people who are being brought together by their need to create art?
This collection of artists is mind blowing. I admire all of them and have learned so much by chatting and getting to know everyone I’ve met so far. It’s one of the biggest learning experiences and growth experiences I’ve had. Finding out about other artist’s processes and lifestyles makes me realize how I relate and how it’s okay to embrace one’s weirdness and how it’s healthy for an artist to follow their specific intuitions.
Have you found the Temple of Art experience to be inspiring or challenging?
Yes, so deliciously inspiring. An inspiration injection right into my eye holes!
In your opinion, what is the most special thing about Temple of Art?
The most special thing about Temple of Art is that so many people out there really do appreciate the artists that create their favorite images. They are interested in the lives and processes. In this bizarre decade of throwaway everything, it’s hard to know if anyone is really paying attention, if anyone cares. Sure we make art because our souls can’t help it, but for me… it’s a way to connect with the outside world and to find out the outside does care… well, that’s tops!
What other projects are you currently working on?
My main big art baby is my 27-issue graphic novel, New Praetorians, which will be out Spring/Summer 2015. I’m finishing chapter three right now. There’s always the celebrity charity Dungeons & Dragons game I throw at Meltdown Comics. Celebritycharitydnd.com will launch a week from now once we have the charity (RORLosAngeles.org) donation center live. The big game day is November 2nd, but you’ll be able to donate before then as well. I’m excited to see the book Mistress Absolute is publishing. I drew about ten plus images for it. I don’t know what else I’m allowed to say about it right now. Pretty much just follow me on Facebook as I’m doing something bizarre and new every week from covers to RPGs to coasters for the La Luz De Jesus Annual Coaster Show.
Allan, Stephanie, and I are all best friends, so they got to see the ecstatic giddy-kat Satine about this dreamy moment. I do believe Stephanie and I frolicked quite a bit about it.
Satine also took the ALS ice bucket challenge solo with a unique twist…
Satine Phoenix is an artist and illustrator, an avid Dungeons & Dragons player, a former adult entertainer, a model, an actress, a storyteller, a gym fox and fitness nerd. Her work can be found on her website, her Instagram page, her Facebook page, her Burning Quill online art portfolio, and ordered on Big Cartel, HERE. She is also available for commissions.